For most first-time authors, writing a book feels overwhelming. It’s a complicated process with many moving parts, and it can be difficult to know where to start.
Most online “experts” will tell you to start by creating a writing plan or outline. They’ll share basic writing tips like:
- “Find a writing space”
- “Schedule regular writing time”
- “Set a daily word count”
The truth is, while these are important steps, they shouldn’t be your first step. There’s a crucial part of writing a nonfiction book that needs to happen before you ever draft your first page—and most people have never heard of it.
It’s called book positioning. Positioning answers the question every reader asks before they read a book:
“Why should I read this book?”
Authors who don’t position their books before they start writing face a variety of consequences. For example:
- They get writer’s block and never finish their book.
- Their book doesn’t resonate with an audience.
- They don’t achieve the outcome they want from their book.
Usually, the only way to solve these problems is to start over from scratch. But more often than not, these Authors end up quitting altogether.
The good news? This doesn’t have to be the case for you.
In this article, I’ll walk you through the 3 steps you need to follow to properly position your book.
But while these steps seem simple, they’re actually quite nuanced. To help demonstrate this, Scribe’s head of book coaching—Emily Gindlesparger—breaks down real-world positioning examples from Authors in our coaching program.
She shares the Authors’ first drafts and explains the feedback we gave to help them perfect their positioning. If you read these, I guarantee you’ll have a much better understanding of how to position your own book (and set yourself up for success).
From first-time writers to New York Timesbestsellers, we’ve helped over 2,000 Authors publish nonfiction books. Our world-class book coaching program—Guided Author—provides the structure and accountability for aspiring Authors to finish their books. To learn more, schedule a consult with one of our Authors Strategists.
Step #1: Determining Your Objectives
The first step of positioning is to determine the objectives of your book. If you don’t know the outcomes you’re hoping for—both for you personally, and for your reader—you’ll lack the motivation and direction you need to write a good book.
By defining your objectives, you can periodically check in and ask: Is this book doing what it’s intended to do? If it’s not, you can adjust accordingly.
There are 2 questions you need to answer to determine your objectives:
- What do you want to get out of writing your book?
- What do you want your reader to get out of your book?
These questions are equally important.
Question #1: What Do You Selfishly Want for Yourself Out of Writing Your Book?
Many people feel like they aren’t allowed to want something from writing a book—they think it has to only be about other people.
Not only is this not true, it’s also a disadvantage to think this way.
Your motivation to help others is unlikely to be enough to move you forward when the process gets hard. Instead, you need to explicitly and consciously understand what’s in it for you personally to reinforce your drive to get it done.
Even if what you want most is to help people, you have to know why helping people is important to you in the first place.
Here’s Emily’s analysis of how one Scribe Author answered this question for himself:
Like many authors, Hussein Al-Baiaty wanted his book, Art of Resilience: The Refugee State of Mind, to help people who were going through similar struggles he’d faced as a refugee. His first draft of objectives were all focused on others:
These are beautiful desires, but the problem is, they’re selfless. There is no self in these sentences to act on these goals. As a result, the objectives aren’t clear. Who takes action toward these aims? What do those actions look like? How could Hussein measure the effects of his work?
In our workshop together, we started with the second goal about empowering teachers, because it was the most specific of the three.
We asked Hussein: why teachers? Because they have influence over refugee students and their peers, and are responsible for building an inclusive community in their classroom.
So it’s not really teachers he wanted to help, we realized, but refugee students. Why students? Because so many refugee kids feel so alone, in new environments, and it’s easy to be misunderstood.
How do you know they feel that way? Because that’s what my experience was like. I want to save my nieces and nephews from feeling like that.
In that moment, Hussein realized the person he really wants to help is an echo of himself.
This is how it is for almost every author we’ve ever worked with.
Once Hussein tapped into his deep understanding of himself, his objectives came out clearly:
Question #2: How Do You Want Your Book to Serve Your Readers?
It’s also crucial to consider what your reader gets from reading your book. If you can’t clearly articulate this to them, no one outside of your family and friends will read it.
If you skip this step, you’ll likely get off track during the writing process and end up with a book that doesn’t serve your readers. By defining this before you start writing, you ensure that doesn’t happen.
Here’s Emily on how another one of our Authors answered this question:
Brita Long, Author of Tidy Up or Simplify: The Difference Is What Will Change Your Life, began with these three objectives for her readers:
You might be looking at these and wondering, “What’s wrong with those goals?”
On their face, they sound great—but when you take a close look at each one, you’ll see they’re full of grand, somewhat vague promises.
Let’s start with the first goal. This is actually 3 separate goals crammed together:
By the time her book was finished, Brita needed to be able to look at this list and ask herself, “Did I deliver on what I promised?”
When 3 goals are crammed together, this is a tough question to answer. But taken separately, she was able to evaluate whether her content fit the bill.
As for the third objective packed into that list, to deliver on her promise, Brita would need to define “the life the reader really wants.” What does that look like? Is it the same for everyone?
Taken on its face, “helping the reader get the life they really want” is too grand a promise. When Brita defined the end result, she crafted a promise she knew she could deliver, as you’ll see in her revised goals below.
Next, take a look at her second goal: “a roadmap to calm and peace.” Can you really promise to someone else the emotions they’ll feel in the future?
Of course not—their emotions are their own, and readers can’t force themselves to feel something. But the second half of Brita’s promise is great: more room in the reader’s home, office, head, and life.
As you’ll see below, her book can deliver on this promise by teaching the reader that extra stuff in their life takes up mental space while giving them the tools to decide what to rid from their lives.
Finally, her third objective is vague. What does “freedom” mean to Brita and to the reader? It turns out, Brita has a specific definition of freedom based on experiences she details in the book.
Once we challenged her to get clear on each of these points, she was able to define goals that pointed directly to what she had to teach the reader.
These objectives are so well defined that it’s easy to see how her book fulfills each one with distinct actions the reader can take. The mark of a great objective is whether the reader can see a clear, final destination for their own development.
Step #2: Define Your Target Audience
Once you know what you want out of writing your book (and how it will serve readers), you need to define who those readers are.
Many Authors write their entire book without ever defining their target audience. If you ask them who their book is for, they’ll say something vague like “this book is for everyone,” or, “I don’t really know.”
I’ve spent over a decade in the writing and publishing industry, and I can tell you that books written for everyone end up being read by no one.
The key to writing an amazing book is to narrow down your audience as much as possible. By focusing on the people who share the specific problem your book solves, you ensure that your book serves an actual audience. This is the only way that books get read.
Helping Authors define their target audience is one of the main things we focus on in our book coaching program.
Here’s Emily’s analysis of how one Scribe Author described their audience:
When Laurie Meinholz first tried to define her book audience, she was almost on the mark:
People who do physical labor, are in pain, and cannot work or spend time with their families.
This is a great start for a book audience in that it defines a clear subset of people who are overtaxed by physical labor. But her initial description brought up some questions about the problem she was specifically going to address in her book. Was it:
When we asked Laurie these questions, she had answers at the ready. She is a chiropractor, and most of her clients are middle-aged men, who after decades of demanding labor in their jobs, deal with chronic physical pain.
When she talked with her patients, it was clear that they each told themselves a story that this was just life, there was no way out of the pain, and they just had to keep suffering through until retirement. Most of them self-medicated with alcohol and pain prescriptions, believing the only way to deal with the pain was to numb themselves.
But Laurie had fixes for them, specifically when it came to understanding their bodies and how to manage or even reverse their pain. That’s what she wrote about in her book, Your Body, a User’s Manual: How Real Men Work without Pain, Booze or Drugs.
Not only was the specific problem she was solving clear to her, but Laurie also realized the group she wanted to speak to was more specific than she initially realized.
She wanted to teach these hardworking, stubborn men how to think differently about their bodies—which meant she needed to write to these particular men she knew well, not to “people” in general.
Her revised audience description precisely outlines who she wants to help and what she will help them with:
Men who do factory work/physical labor, are hurt, and have to take strong pain medication in order to get through the work day.
Step #3: Craft Your Book Idea
Most Authors can tell you what their book is about before they start writing it, but few can articulate why their audience will care. That’s the key to crafting a compelling book idea.
This might seem similar to the question above about what readers will get out of your book. That’s because it is. It’s another angle hitting at the same core truth.
Asking the question “why will your audience care?” forces you to think from the mind of your audience instead of your own mind—and to model the thoughts, wants, needs, and fears of the person you’re trying to serve.
Understanding what your reader needs is the only way to provide value to them. If you don’t answer this question, you won’t accomplish the objectives driving you to write your book in the first place.
Here’s a final example from Emily to demonstrate how to do this:
This example comes from Donald Meador’s Surrounded by Insanity: How to Execute on Bad Decisions. Donald’s very first draft of his book idea was simple:
The book will teach middle managers how to manage real people, with real hopes and goals, to substitute the training that they never actually got.
The problem with Donald’s first draft is that it wasn’t clear what readers would actually get from his book. What did he mean by “real people with real hopes and goals”? What was the training this group of middle managers so sorely needed?
When we pressed Donald on these questions, he had very specific answers. By “real people,” he meant employees who weren’t just robots, but intelligent people capable of critical thinking.
The employees and middle managers, he explained, had their own goals for their careers, and the specific pain he’d seen over and over again was that their goals were getting stymied by upper management, who passed bad decisions down to the middle managers, who then had to coordinate the employees to execute bad plans.
He’d seen lots of middle managers stuck in impossible situations, where they had to ask employees to sink a lot of hard work into initiatives they knew would flounder or fail. At stake were their own hopes and goals for their career advancement. Lead a bad initiative, and you might as well resign yourself to a career of mediocrity.
After Donald explained all of this, we asked him to look back at his book idea. Were those ideas reflected in what he’d written? Nope. He knew this was a risky book to write, and he’d initially hidden his agenda behind a book idea that was more general and palatable.
Once he confronted his fear of writing a controversial book and reconnected to what he wanted to help his readers with, he rewrote his book idea:
The book is to teach middle managers the correct way to handle a situation where they are instructed to execute something they know will fail. They will learn how to manage their bosses’ expectations, learn the proper way to communicate a bad idea to their team, and how to insulate themselves from the potential fallout.
Now that’s a book many down-and-out middle managers would be compelled to read: the content is laser-focused on a specific problem they face, and the solutions are clearly spelled out, making it easy for the reader to trust they’ll get what they’re paying for.
Remember, nobody cares about you or your book. They only care about what your book can do for them.
When you know what that is, you can write a great book that achieves the objectives of both you and your readers.
Want Help Positioning Your Book?
Every bestselling Author I know—from Tim Ferriss to Brene Brown and Malcolm Gladwell—spends as much time positioning their book as they do writing it. That’s why we spend so much time on this in our Guided Author Program.
Guided Author is for entrepreneurs, consultants, executives, and other experts who feel they have a book in them but want professional guidance and accountability to help them write it. It’s designed to make writing a book manageable for people running companies or working full-time.
We provide you with everything you need to write, publish, and market your book.
Here is a quick breakdown of everything that’s included in Guided Author:
- Complete access to Scribe Book School (the best course on writing and publishing for nonfiction Authors).
- A 3-day in-person coaching workshop led by myself and senior Scribe editors.
- Weekly group coaching calls with our senior editors.
- Three 1-on-1 consults with a senior Scribe editor.
- Access to our private community of successful writers and published Authors.
- A full edit of your finished manuscript by our editorial team, complete with high-level developmental notes throughout the editing process.
- Full self-publishing services, including book cover design as well as prints of your book in hardcover, paperback, and Kindle/other eBook formats.
- Full distribution through major online retailers, such as Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
- 100% retention of all rights and royalties.
- Consult with an Author Strategist to plan the marketing strategy for your book.
- Graphics to promote your book on LinkedIn, Facebook, and other social media platforms.
- A scheduled interview on our Author Hour podcast.
- Strategy and templates for leveraging your network.
- First week-promotions to help you become an Amazon bestseller.
Guided Author costs $18,000 ($1,500/month for 12 months) and includes a money back guarantee. If you’re thinking about writing and publishing your first book, schedule a consult with one of our Authors Strategists to see if the program is a good fit for you.